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When the Culture Wars Came to Liberty City

‘Grand Theft Auto III’ was far from the first controversial video game, but it became one of the most significant ones in the fights over content, ratings, and free speech. Twenty years later, is a similar backlash even possible?

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On October 22, 2001, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III, a game that transported the publisher’s trademark criminal mayhem to an unimaginably immersive 3-D Liberty City. GTA III became a bestselling sensation that defined the open-world genre, spawning several sequels, inspiring countless imitators, and causing a cultural uproar. Twenty years later, we’re taking a look at its legacy while we wait for the upcoming GTA trilogy remaster, prepare to purchase yet another version of GTA V, and read rumors about the still-unannounced GTA VI. Welcome to GTA Day.

Aside from making it possible for me to be born, the greatest gift my grandma ever gave me was Grand Theft Auto III. It didn’t cost her anything, because she didn’t actually get me the game. She just stood by my side in the store as I grabbed the game and forked over cash from my first summer job, her well-over-17-year-old self serving as a largely unwitting accomplice to my end around an M rating. In the summer of 2002, I was two years too young to buy GTA on my own, but I’d finally saved up enough to purchase a PlayStation 2 and the precious software that went with it. GTA III had been out for almost a year, and I was desperate to play it, but the grandma method was my only hope—not just because of GameStop store policy, but also because of the commands of my mother. Aside from frequently decreeing that I stop playing and start practicing piano, my mom paid little attention to video games, but she knew one thing: Grand Theft Auto III was not to be bought by me.

Who knows how my mom had decided that GTA was unsuitable for my 15-year-old eyes? A scary story in the paper? A fearmongering segment on the local news? Maybe a warning from some other meddling mom? It didn’t matter anymore. I holed up at my grandma’s house, spending sweet summer days with my body in Brooklyn but my mind in Liberty City, an underage GTA player in exile. Eventually I got greedy and brought the PS2 home, where my scheme was discovered and my hardware was confiscated. But hey, it had worked for a while. (And by then, as Patrick Stewart says on Extras, I had already “seen everything.”)

If I’d been more persistent and willing to endure the embarrassment of potentially being carded, I probably could have gotten the game myself. A December 2001 FTC report based on a study of undercover consumers found that 78 percent of 13-to-16-year-old shoppers had been able to buy an M-rated game that year without anyone checking their age. That was down from 85 percent the previous year, though, and the rate was falling fast, to 69 percent in 2003 (when I resorted to asking upperclassmen at my high school to help me get games), 42 percent in 2006, 20 percent in 2008, and 13 percent in 2010. I don’t mean to suggest that retailers shouldn’t have respected the ratings system, or that those age-related restrictions shouldn’t have existed (though I would’ve loved to revoke them when they applied to me). But that rapidly increasing compliance in the early 2000s was a symptom of a widespread, preexisting concern surrounding violent video games, which GTA and its sequels further inflamed. Twenty years ago Friday, when GTA III debuted, the country was enmeshed in a moral panic about video game violence, which in the short term was only going to get worse.

“When GTA III came out, there was already a continuing spotlight on video game industry content by people in the media and people in policy and in the broad parent advocacy community, which spanned conservative, religious organizations to more mainstream watchdog organizations,” says Doug Lowenstein, the founder and former president of the Entertainment Software Association, the Washington, D.C.–based video game industry trade association. Two decades ago, it was Lowenstein’s job to defend the industry from mostly state-based efforts to regulate games or ban games. “GTA III, with a lot of innovative technology, pushed the envelope creatively and artistically and also from a content standpoint, and in so doing became the new poster child for those who would attack the social effects of games on users,” he says. The game “put us back into the line of sight of people in government and policy and media who then typically defaulted to what they always defaulted to, which was, ‘This is terrible, violent video games are bad for kids, and this one is the worst one we’ve ever seen.’”

Roughly a dozen GTA sequels later, that level of fear and enmity—the kind that made my mom, who knew virtually nothing about video games, forbid me to play GTA—feels foreign. Could a video game, GTA or otherwise, still provoke that kind of cultural backlash? Is violence still parents’ most pressing concern about games? And what produced the difference between the country’s attitude toward gaming in 2001 and the perception that prevails today?

GTA III, which cleverly mocked parents’ fixation on virtual violence even as it heightened their apprehension, was far from the first game to find itself at the center of a culture war. Lowenstein formed the ESA (then called the Interactive Digital Software Association) in April 1994, in response to the 1993 congressional hearings on video games that were prompted by violent and/or sexually suggestive games such as Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and, a little later, Doom. The ESA oversaw the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which established a content-rating system that the industry hoped would head off federal regulation. The government accepted the ESRB’s standards, which averted one crisis.

Then came the purported associations with school shootings. Beginning with his involvement in a court case concerning a West Paducah, Kentucky, high school shooting that took place in December 1997, a Florida attorney named Jack Thompson embarked on a Comstockian crusade against games such as Rockstar’s, which he perceived to be obscene “murder simulators.” The April ’99 Columbine massacre, the perpetrators of which were known to have played shooting games (including Doom), seemed to cement a link between video game violence and real-life violence in the public consciousness, even though there was no conclusive evidence that such a link existed. (Popular music, another frequent target of Thompson’s ire, was also accused by others of provoking the Columbine killers.)

“The concern about violence in video games [having] an impact on children predates any real research that had been done in this area,” says Western Michigan University professor Whitney DeCamp, who has extensively studied the connection between violent video games and behavior. Some early looks seemed to show a correlation, but not necessarily a causative effect, and even the correlations turned out to be tenuous, judging by more sophisticated subsequent studies and meta-analyses. “You can’t just look at the first few studies and say, ‘Oh, well now we know this to be true,’” DeCamp says. “And unfortunately, the news media doesn’t really go by that standard. They’re often interested in what attracts attention.”

What attracted attention was positing an evident danger posed by video games, despite the stats seemingly being skewed by confounding factors. For instance, girls and young women are both less likely to be physically aggressive and less likely to play violent video games than boys and young men, and children whose parents monitor them closely (and prevent them from playing violent video games) may be less likely to get into trouble for reasons unrelated to gaming. (Thanks, Mom.) “What I found was after controlling for that, a lot of the differences just disappear, or at least are extremely small in comparison to where they were before,” DeCamp concludes. Stetson University psychology professor Christopher Ferguson, coauthor of the 2017 book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, agrees, saying, “I don’t think there are any correlations between violent video game playing and any kind of physical aggression.” Last year, the American Psychological Association published a resolution to clarify that it doesn’t see sufficient evidence to support the idea of a causal link between video game violence and violent behavior.

Before DeCamp and Ferguson began conducting their research, Drs. Cheryl Olson and Larry Kutner came to a similar conclusion. Olson and Kutner, a wife-and-husband duo of psychologists who codirected the Center for Mental Health and Media at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital, got funding allocated by a congressman who was concerned about the social implications of video games. The congressman asked them to demonstrate the link between violence in video games and violence in society. They explained that science doesn’t work that way; they would follow the facts to a conclusion rather than trying to support one that was already reached. They decided that studying well-publicized but rare events like mass shootings wouldn’t be the most fruitful approach. “There were mass shootings before there were video games,” Olson says. “There was violence in society before there were video games. … We knew these things were cyclical.”

Instead, they focused on lower-level aggression among young teens, such as fighting and bullying. They discovered that not only was the existing gaming-related research sparse, but that much of the literature on effects of violence in other media suffered from loose definitions and loose assumptions, in terms of how violent behavior and violent content were defined. “A lot of people were using vague terms, vague phrases, and then making inferential leaps based on that,” Kutner says.

Olson and Kutner developed more precise and repeatable measures, and they also spoke to the kids. What they heard is that the kids seemed quite clear on the import of what they were playing. As Olson says, “The reason they could enjoy a game that looked awful to adults where people’s heads are falling off, they’re stomping all over them and everything, was that the kids knew it was safely in the realm of fantasy, and that’s why they could have a good time with it.” What actually unnerved them was TV news reports about real-world events, and much lower-stakes but more realistic in-game events, such as kissing in The Sims—an analog of an anxiety-inducing situation that they’d actually be likely to encounter.

All in all, Olson and Kutner found nothing to corroborate the supposition of harmful effects. As Olson reasoned, “If this is causing a whole ton of aggressive behavior, in the FBI crime statistics we should be seeing a rise in assaults. Instead, violence was going down just as the panic over video games was really taking off. And so I was like, ‘This doesn’t compute.’” Indeed, the juvenile arrest rate has continued to decline significantly since its post-1980 peak in 1996—ironically, the year before the first GTA came out. Olson says it’s conceivable that violent media could exacerbate the problems of someone who has a preexisting mental health issue, but that “I can’t point to any case where media content exposure caused a problem from scratch.” In the sample she and her husband studied, playing video games was so common among boys of that age group that not being a gamer was a more worrisome sign that could indicate being “socially not in the swing of things.” As Villanova psychology professor Patrick Markey, the other coauthor of Moral Combat, expresses it, “A school shooter is less likely to play a violent video game than the person that they actually shoot.”

In April 2008, Olson and Kutner published a book about their findings, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do. “We were the first academics, I think, or people who had the right credentials to come out and say, ‘Hey, maybe this stuff is not bad and may even have some positives,’” Olson says. Kutner explains that reframing and bringing data to the discussion was a helpful persuasion technique. “It was a passageway toward opening discussions with public policy makers, because it allowed you to raise an issue without showing an emotional commitment,” he says, adding, “This gave people an opportunity to have a logical framework for making the arguments, as opposed to, ‘I’m scared that all of society is going to hell in a handbasket and my kid’s going to grab an Uzi and start shooting people.’”

Not everyone was pleased by Olson and Kutner’s conclusions. They say they were “attacked” by political opponents, and that one figure made false claims that they had delayed the release of GTA IV to coincide with their book launch (which they say they wished they had the power to do). “We didn’t know how much we were poking the bear,” Kutner says. The responses they elicited from people on the opposite side of the issue convinced them that video game violence was a moral panic, not an acute concern. “The key to a moral panic is, when it happens, people look at what happened in the past and go, ‘Well, clearly that was ridiculous, but this time it’s different,’” Kutner says. “And it’s not different.”

In some cases, people come by their moral panics honestly. “These moral panics that pop up often originate from people who may have the best intentions or are concerned about future generations and things being different from when they grew up,” says DeCamp. “If we go back and look at movies, radio, television, comic books, different types of music, it seems to be the same story over and over and over.” As Ferguson puts it, “There seems to be this cognitive belief that something can’t just be offensive, it can’t just be sort of morally yucky, it has to also be harmful. So if I don’t like this thing and my little grandchild Jimmy is playing it, then it must be damaging him and that makes me upset.”

In other cases, of course, the panics are incited or inflamed to score political points. “Whenever there are concerns about certain social issues that may be politically unsavory—for example, gun control—it’s very convenient to be able to point at another issue and say, ‘Well, we need to solve that,’” DeCamp observes. “It can kick the can down the road quite nicely.”

Much to Lowenstein’s dismay, video game violence became a bipartisan talking point—an issue where Democrats could claim a slice of Republicans’ “family values” sweet spot by aligning themselves with worried parents. (As Tipper Gore did during the 1980s with warning labels on music.) Bashing GTA, he says, was “a politically easy issue for people on the right and left to rely on. They saw very little political price to being anti–video games or raising concerns about violence and media, and it played well.” Behind closed doors, Lowenstein says, some politicians even owned up to their opportunism. “I had a governor of a major state who I met with who, when we went to try to convince the person to veto a bill to regulate games, looked us in the eye and said, ‘I know it’s unconstitutional, but I’m going to sign it in. And I know you’re going to win in court but there’s no political upside for me to derail this bill.’”

In the first few years of the 3-D GTA era—which coincided with the release of other notoriously violent games, such as 2003’s Postal 2 and Manhunt (another Rockstar title)—the blows to the video game industry kept coming. (Some at Rockstar found the disapproval painful too: Jeremy Pope, producer of GTA III and Vice City, left the company partway through development of San Andreas because he was tired of explaining to his grandma why he was working on very violent games.) In 2005, Thompson tried to defend a teenager in Alabama who had shot and killed two policemen and a police dispatcher by arguing that Vice City had incited his spree. The legal gambit didn’t work, but it did get Thompson on 60 Minutes to talk about his cause.

Later in 2005, then-Senator Hillary Clinton introduced a bill called the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would have made it illegal to sell video games rated “mature” or “adults-only” to people under 17. (The aforementioned undercover shopper reports had followed a 1999 memo to the FTC from Hillary’s husband, Bill.) That initiative went nowhere, but the same year, the California Legislature passed AB 1179, which banned the sale of violent video games to anyone under 18. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law, though it was blocked by the courts before it went into effect.

And then, that same year, there was Hot Coffee, the mother of all Rockstar scandals, in which a completed but deactivated sex scene was left on the San Andreas disc, which Rockstar didn’t disclose to the ESRB and which came to light when a modder exposed the animation. The ensuing investigation led to the game being given an Adults Only rating until the offending code could be removed. The revelation also inspired another New York grandma—not mine—to sue Rockstar because she’d bought San Andreas for her 14-year-old grandson without being aware of its smutty secret content. Unfortunately for the 14-year-old, his game got taken away. (I can relate.)

Rockstar and Thompson were so closely linked at that time that their war of words and briefs was later memorialized on screen. Even though Hollywood has the hots for video game adaptations, there still hasn’t been much buzz about a non–Ron Howard–directed Grand Theft Auto movie (much as Elijah Wood wants one). But there has been a movie made about GTA—or, at least, a BBC-produced docudrama from 2015 about Thompson’s and Rockstar’s legal battles circa 2005, in which Bill Paxton plays Thompson and Daniel Radcliffe plays Rockstar head Sam Houser.

Throughout all of Rockstar’s edgelord actions, Thompson’s grandstanding, and politicians’ pandering, Lowenstein—who was in this fight for the First Amendment principle much more so than any personal affinity for violent video games—took solace in the long game. “It was comforting to know that eventually comic books became part of mainstream culture and movies and television and rock ’n’ roll music all went through their own moments of being lightning rods for cultural criticism,” he says. “And they all emerged eventually as highly successful and highly regarded forms of artistic expression. And I always believed that would happen to video games.”

And so it has. As Lowenstein played Whac-A-Mole with state-level legislation, the lower courts consistently supported the ESA’s free-speech stance. “We knew and believed that we were going to win these cases and that the tide would start to shift,” Lowenstein says. In 2011, the Supreme Court struck down the 2005 California legislation in a 7-2 decision, which confirmed that video games, like other media, were protected speech under the First Amendment. The court was unconvinced by the supposed evidence of video games’ harmful effects. Gradually, the GTA furor faded, and by the time GTA V came out in 2013, New York Times reviewer Chris Suellentrop noted that “the controversies that once surrounded the Grand Theft Auto games have begun to seem like sepia-toned oddities from another age.”

As gaming has matured, maybe it’s moved beyond being limited to conversations about whether animated guys with guns are creating flesh-and-blood guys with guns. As recent conversations about the content of games like Twelve Minutes, Deathloop, and Boyfriend Dungeon have shown, the gaming community is engaging with itself on questions of how to handle depictions of domestic violence, incest, and harassment. These are more delicate conversations than debates about cartoonish (or even lifelike) gore and whether Mortal Kombat’s blood should be replaced with sweat. They aren’t questions for Congress. And judging by Grand Theft Auto’s history of neglecting or alienating women, Rockstar doesn’t have the answers.

So, could video games cause the sort of moral panic today that GTA III and its descendants did 15 to 20 years ago? Not in precisely the same way. As DeCamp points out, “People who played these games in their youth are now the parents of young children and are the ones asking the questions. … As more and more people have either personal experience with them or indirect experience through friends when they were growing up, they’re going to be less troubled by something like that.” Enough time has passed that games have gotten respectable; even congresspeople play. The sensationalist media has mostly moved on, and Olson and Kutner’s phones have largely stopped ringing with calls from reporters and radio hosts who want them to weigh in on whether a killing could be blamed on games.

“That switch got turned, and it moved to something else,” Kutner says, and Olson suggests, “Vaping is the new video games.” Markey nominates another new moral panic candidate: screen time. “To me, the newest moral panic is iPhones and anything attached to the iPhone,” he says. “So Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok. … They just define it as screen time on an iPhone, and I think that’s the latest moral panic. It does follow the exact same [pattern] as video games, in that the fear is outpacing the data by a massive margin.”

As gaming has climbed the cultural ladder, some of the most vocal past opponents of violent video games have seen their own reputations tank. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who wanted to make it a misdemeanor to sell violent or sexually explicit games to minors, ended up in prison on corruption charges. So did Leland Yee, the former California state senator who sponsored AB 1179, and who had money laundering, bribery and, yes, gun running added to his rap sheet. Thompson was permanently disbarred in 2008 for allegations of repeated misconduct and false statements, among other infractions.

Which isn’t to say that Lowenstein’s most vehement ex-adversary, and the former face of the anti-GTA uproar, is repentant today. Has his mind changed at all about the danger of violent video games? “Oh, no,” Thompson says. “It hasn’t changed. … I think I’ve already been vindicated numerous times.” Nor does he regret any of the actions that led to his disbarment. (“I’ve played it over thousands of times. I can’t think of anything.”) He concedes that the cultural outrage is “somewhat attenuated now,” observing that “The media says been there, done that, and they move on. … But for other people who are stubborn, who in this case want to save lives, they don’t let go of it, and I haven’t let go of it.” Thompson, who laments the ease of accessing adult content in the age of online ordering and downloadable games, still insists that “You’re going to see a pickup when one of these criminal cases puts the video game industry on trial.”

Thompson isn’t the only holdout. Politicians, parents, and police still sometimes dredge up the old bogeyman after major shootings. “Often what I see is they’ll be asking a question like, ‘Are video games involved?’ before there’s any evidence of that,” DeCamp says. When a shooter is linked to video games, however innocuously, confirmation bias reinforces the stereotype. After Sandy Hook, a senator invoked video games, and then vice president Joe Biden met with gaming industry leaders. After Parkland, Kentucky’s governor laid blame on games, and President Trump summoned industry leaders to the White House once again. Trump and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy repeated the refrain the following year, though the Times and the Post immediately debunked their claims. Just this year, a Chicago state representative advocated banning the sale of violent video games, and two different Florida shootings were connected tenuously to Grand Theft Auto. Nor is this phenomenon unique to the U.S.; violent tragedies elsewhere spark similar responses, especially in countries that have historically been hostile to violent games. “I fully expect that these flare-ups will continue,” says DeCamp.

To a very slight extent, Thompson and the psychologists I’ve cited agree. “Culture matters,” Thompson says. “How you spend your time matters, and the virtual world can spill over into the real world.” Markey concedes that much. “Nobody’s saying that we’re not influenced by media at all,” he says. (Actually, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos sort of said that last week.) “We are influenced by media. The question just is, ‘Does it influence kids or adults to the extent that they’re going to commit homicides?’ That’s where the data just are not there.”

But the next (or current) phase of gaming moral panics may be tied less to violence than to screen time, exacerbated by pandemic-imposed indoor time and the proliferation of potentially exploitative loot boxes and microtransactions. In 2019, the World Health Organization controversially classified “gaming disorder” as a behavioral addiction, and earlier this year, in a measure designed to combat addiction, China imposed a three-hour-a-week play limit on gamers under 18.

Addiction, Ferguson says, is “definitely a new front in the larger battle about whether these things are something to be worried about. … There’s a group of scholars who sort of agree this is a thing, and then there’s another group of scholars who say it is not a thing.” Ferguson doesn’t dispute that some gamers play an unhealthy amount (as examples of lethal gaming binges demonstrate), but he believes that overdoing it on gaming has more to do with other underlying conditions than the games themselves, concluding that “the research evidence is kind of dodgy.”

Suspect or not, Markey sees history repeating itself. “Whenever I talk to media, they almost never want to talk about violence anymore,” he says. “They want to talk about addiction to games. … It’s definitely sensationalized right now. The data don’t back up the fear that’s out there. … Our radars went off with the addiction stuff, because it’s so much like the violence stuff.” Which is why he and other researchers plan to continue their inquiries, not only into addiction, but also into violence, to ensure that evolving conditions aren’t producing different outcomes. “As society changes, our research needs to continue questioning—not just whether or not our explanations for things are accurate, but also whether they’re still accurate,” DeCamp says.

Regardless of whether gaming addiction disorder is a serious threat, there may be one more round of disquiet and concern-trolling about video game violence ahead. DeCamp speculates that one reason why the anxiety has subsided is that the graphical advances between generations have gotten progressively less perceptible: We aren’t often shocked by new games the way we were by GTA III in 2001. But a bigger jump could be coming. “I’m convinced that as soon as we have the next leap in technology with 3-D, immersive virtual reality stuff, it’ll be just like Larry was saying, where all that last panic was ridiculous, but now this one, kids are immersed, they don’t know fantasy from reality,” Olson says. “It’ll be the same thing all over again.”

In other words, if GTA VI supports PSVR2 … well, CJ said it best:

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